Victorian London - Publications - Popularity of books - a view from 1837

    London, as every one is aware, is the great emporium of trade, commerce, wealth and fashion; it is still more so of literature. Thither authors flock from all parts of the country, even from its remotest points, to publish their works. Not only is is thought there is a want of respectability in books which issue from the provincial press, but it is taken for granted - and in most cases justly - that they have not the same chances of success as if emanating from the metropolis. London has, undoubtedly, many advantages in this respect peculiar to itself. It is, for example, the only place which has a regular communication with all other parts of the country. It has, too, as the metropolis, a name which no other town can by possibility ever acquire. It not only now is, but ever must continue, the great depot of literary works; the place whence, wherever they may be written, they must emanate. In speaking, therefore, of the literature of the metropolis, I may be considered as speaking, in great measure, of the literature of Great Britain generally.
About twenty years ago, the literary tide set in favour of fiction. The extraordinary success of the Waverley Novels stimulated a host of writers to apply themselves to works of a similar class. If those who, after Sir Walter Scott, were the earliest in this literary field, did not acquire the same fame, or derive the same pecuniary advantage as the Magician of the North, they were sufficiently successful to encourage them to make new efforts, and to induce others to follow their example. Hence, about ten or twelve years since, when the mania for works of fiction was at its height, it was calculated that from two to three hundred appeared in the course of a year. All of them of any note could boast a sale of from 750 to 1000: decidely good ones often reached a sale of from 1500 to 2000 copies. A striking change has since come over the spirit of this class of literature. The authors, whose works of fiction a dozen years since commanded a sale of from 1500 to 2000 copies, cannot now command a sale of 500. I could mention many instance in confirmation of this, but it would be equally invidious to authors and publishers. I may state in general terms, that on one day, about six months ago, four novels, two of them by authors of great celebrity in the high and palmy days of works of fiction, were published by different houses. and that the sale of neither of the works exceeded 350 copies; that of three out of the four was under that number. Publishers have now come to the conclusion - a conclusion forced on them by painful experience - that the days of this class of works are past for ever. Authors may continue to write, but publishers will not publish, except in comparatively few cases, even though the copyright were offered them for nothing. If authors will write novels, they must publish them at their own risk. This, indeed, has been the case, though the public are not aware of the fact, in many instances of late years, as I shall have occasion afterwards to show at some length. The truth is that, with the exception of the works of fifteen or twenty authors, no individual ever now dreams of purchasing a novel for his own reading. The only copies bought are for the circulating libraries.
    Poetry is at a still greater discount in the literary market than novels. Offer a publisher a volume of poetry, and he sickens at the very sight. He looks upon you much in the same way as if he had detected you in the act of attempting to pick his pocket. And assuredly not without reason; for in various cases, with the last three of four years, have publishers smarted most severely by speculating in the commodity of poetry; and this, too, while the quality of the article has been admitted on all hands to be very superior. A short time since, a popular poet sold the copyright of a poem for 100l. to a publisher at the West End. It was really a beautiful composition, and was most liberally praised in reviews of from ten to twenty pages, in "Blackwood's Magazine" and other leading periodicals; and yet the sale did not much exceed 50 copies. Another poem of a humorous kind, extending to nearly three hundred pages, which was very clever, and displayed great depth and variety of erudition, was published about twenty months ago. It was to the author the labour of years; and what does the reader suppose was the extent of the sale? Just eighteen copies. To such an extent, indeed, has poetry become a drug in the market, that I do not believe the names of Campbell, or Rogers, or Wordsworth, would insure a sale of more than a few hundred copies, of any poetical work they could at present produce.
    ... Of late years little in the shape of history has been attempted. Where the subject has been interesting, and the execution respectable, such works have met with a fair sale. The historical works which have appeared in Dr Lardner's "Cyclopaedia" have all been successful; but that is not a fair index of the demand for historical literature, as it is impossible to distinguish between those cases in which such works have sold on their own account, and those in which they have been purchased, merely because they formed a part of a connected series of volumes on literature in general.
    Statistical works on subjects of general importance are in fair demand at present. The majority of these which have of late been published by Mr. Knight, have been of this class, and they have, for the most part, been very successful. Mr Babbage's "Economy of Manufactures", Dr Lardner's "Steam Engine", Maculloch's "Commercial Dictionary", Baine's "History of the Cotton Manufacture" &c. have severally had an extensive scale.
    Philosophy is in bad repute at the present moment, among the reading public. Supposing Locke and Boyles were to arise in dozens, they would not just now succeed in getting themselves or their works into notice. Within the last few years several very able and profound works on the subject of mental philosophy have appeared, but the most successful of them have not reached a sale of 200 copies.
    Works bearing on the subject of health, when drawn up in a popular form, are now very generally read. Dr James Clark's admirable "Treatise on Consumption" has attracted more attention beyond the pale of the profession, than any similar work ever published. This fact must have been observed by every one in the habit of reading the magazines and newspapers; for almost every newspaper and literary periodical of any note, has most earnestly recommended it to the attention of the public.
    Biography and autobiography are in considerable request, where the subjects are well known. and the books are well written. Barry Cornwall's "Life of Kean" and Campbell's "Life of Mrs Siddons" have each been tolerably successful. "The Life of Salt", the British Consul at Cairo, and "The Life of Thomas Picton" have been still more so. The "Life of Lord Exmouth" by Mr Osler, published two years ago, has sold to the extent of 1500 copies. Galt's "Autobiography", though the price was 28s. the two volumes, and Sir Egerton Brydges' "Autobiography", published at the same price, severally reached a sale of about 700 copies.
    Books of voyages and travels, especially the latter, when the part of the world visited excites interest, and where the writer has displayed judgment and tact in the use of the materials provided for him, are read with avidity. Quin's "Voyage down the Danube" has sold to the extent of 1200 or 1400 copies. Holman's "Voyage Round the World", though in four large volumes, has met with a sale of 600 or 700 copies. The Voyages of Captain Ross and of Captain Back to the Arctic Seas, have met with an extensive sale. The number of copies sold of the first exceeds 2000, that of the second about 1000, though both were expensive works. Mr Bentley's edition of "Lamartine's Pilgrimage to the Holy Land" has met with a large sale; so have most of the late works on the same subject. Stuart's "Three Years' Residence in America" has been very successful. It has reached a third edition, making a sale of upwords of 1500 copies. Macfarlane's "Travels in the East" has sold nearly to the same extent. Drs Reed and Mathison's "Travels in Amercia", published in 1835, sold to the extent of 1000 in seven or eight months, though an expensive work in two volumes; and Drs Cox and Hoby's "Visit to the American Baptist Churches" published in March or April last year, went through the first edition in about three months. The sale of Mr Barrow's "Tour round Ireland" performed in the autumn of last year, has met with great success, upwards of 800 copies having been sold of it in less than six months after the time of publication.
    Works of a light and sketchy kind are among those most generally read in the present day. It is the admirable wit and humour of Captain Marryat's sketches of character, more than anything else, that render his works so popular. It was the same qualities that brought Theodore Hook's late novel of "Gilbert Gurney" to a second edition in about six months, though few other novels have reached a second edition in the last twelve months. To the same cause also is "Boz" to attribute the sale of 1500 copies of his two volumes of "Sketches of Every-day Scenes and Every-day People." (*since this was written, the work has reached a still greater scale).
    Divinity in most cases is an unsaleable commodity in the bibliopolic market. Sermons are especially so. Perhaps not one theological work out of twenty or thirty, pays its expenses. The works of distinguished divines, however, still command a renumerating sale. So great is popularity of the works of the late Rev. Robert Hall, that one of the houses for the publication of religious books gave 4000l. for the copyright, in six volumes - including the memoir of the author's life, by Dr Olinthus Gregory. The copyright of works of the late Rev. C. Simeon, of Cambridge, in twenty volumes, was also recently purchased by Holdsworth and Ball, if I mistake not, for 5000l. The Rev. Alexander Fletcher's "Family Devotion" though the price is twenty four shilling, has had an extensive sale. Upwards of 2000 copies were disposed of it in a very short time. Nor is its great success to be wondered at; for if anything could be more happy than the plan of the work, it is the way in which it is executed.
    The current of public taste seems at present to run principally in the direction of works which have a personal relation; no matter whether to bodies of men, or to persons in their individual capacities ("Almacks" was an instance of this. It was the freedom with which it dealt with well known personages, though under fictitious names, that procured it a sale of upwards of 2000 copies. Prince Puckler's "Tour in England" a few years since, owed its success to the same cause). The caricatures and personalities with which Mrs Trollope's "America and the Americans" about, were the great secret of its success. The same may be said of her late work on "Paris and the Parisians". Anything in the shape of scandal or abuse, is sure to be read with avidity; so also are those works which, though there be nothing ill-natured or vituperative in them, make us acquainted with the habits and peculiarities of persons who fill a large space in the public eye, provided the works be cleverly written. It was Mr Willis's disclosures of that kind, that proved the passport to his "Pencillings by the Way" to a sale of 1500 copies in the space of twelve months.
    The number of books published last year in London, in the various departments of science and literature, were, as nearly as can be ascertained, fifteen hundred.
    It is calculated that out of every fifteen books published, taking them on the average, not more than one pays its own expenses. "The Edinburgh Review" proved to demonstration, some years ago, that only one out of every fifty pamphlets which make their appearance, pay the expenses of paper, print, stitching, and advertising. On this subject, I shall have something more to say when I come to the chapter on "Authors and Publishers".
    Only one book, on an average, out of about 200, reaches a second edition. Out of 500 books, not more than one gets to a third edition; and out of 1000 only one has the good fortune to reach a fourth edition.

James Grant, The Great Metropolis 1837